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Come Together

An interview with Miriam Lowenbraun, who is working to bring Jews back to observance

Samantha M. Shapiro
April 27, 2010

Since its founding in the 1980’s, the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) has served as a clearinghouse for Orthodox practitioners of kiruv, the Hebrew word for drawing near, that refers to efforts to encourage unaffiliated Jews to become more religiously observant. The Lubavitch have made kiruv a hallmark of their movement, sending emissaries to far-flung corners of the world with coolers of kosher meat and a mandate to start a synagogue. AJOP is, in effect, the organization for all other kinds of kiruv workers.

In addition to its annual conference, AJOP is hosting a special kiruv conference for women in the movement this week in Ohio. Miriam Lowenbraun, the wife of AJOP’s director, Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, has been working in kiruv since she was a child—her father was a rabbi—and her home now is ground zero for her husband’s recruitment efforts.

Ever mindful of the need for outreach, as I interviewed Lowenbraun, she suggested that I listen to rabbinic lectures on tape, recommended a fashionable rebbetzin with whom I might connect, and invited me to spend a Shabbat in Baltimore with her family.

Why have a separate convention for women? Do they have unique issues in their kiruv work?

Women face different challenges. Men are outwardly focused in the community, and women focus on their homes and bringing people into them. In most communities, the homes are the center of operation; you invite people for Shabbos, and people make connections there. Your home becomes the example of what a Jewish, Torah observant, home should be like.

A woman has to balance what’s going on in terms of the people coming to her home and her family’s needs. How do you balance the Shabbos table where you have guests who may need one thing and your own children who need attention?

Women also have to figure out how to present themselves as Orthodox and within the confines of Torah, but still be relatable, with it, and modern. In terms of physical appearance, how do you look good, but maintain the traditional Torah guidelines as far as how one dresses? Also, women have to know what’s going on in the world if people are coming into their homes and having discussions, and for women who are involved with children and daily issues, it’s more of challenge than it is for the men who tend to be more academically oriented.

What are the current issues generally that people working in kiruv face?

Assimilation is tremendous. And in our time it is very hard to find Jews; at one time you could identify Jews even if they weren’t religious because they were involved in a synagogue to some extent. Now there are people who don’t even know they are Jewish, people for whom Yom Kippur doesn’t even enter their life space. And there are many people who think they are Jewish who are not, people who may not be Jewish because their mother may not be Jewish. There are many people in America for whom it’s not an issue—they are so distant already from Judaism. And we are losing kids from Orthodox homes; this is a growing issue that needs to be addressed.

Why is kiruv important—if we all follow our own path, why must it be one of observance?

It depends on what your values are. If I believe that Torah is the core of all existence, and surely of all Jewish existence, and it’s the best life for Jews, and there are Jews who don’t even know the Torah exists, it’s incumbent upon me to reach out and expose them to it. What if someone told you you had a diamond in your family and you never saw it, why would you believe it? It might be hearsay. But if you saw it, you might have different attitude. If I know I have such a special treasure and I love my fellow Jew why would I not want to at least show them the diamond and if they choose to examine it they can? You don’t have free choice if you’ve never seen it.

Is kiruv something that has always been a part of Jewish life or is it a modern phenomenon?

As long as there have been Jews there have been Jews who have strayed, and the community has tried to reach out for them. In the 1700s and 1800s, the Haskalah, an anti-religious movement, tried to emancipate Jews intellectually, and it created a lot of problems, although I don’t think they were on the scale they are today. The phenomenon of losing Jews is not a new one, but the way we try to be more organized in how we reach out to people is a more modern thing. Technology has a lot to do with it. The world has become so small, and the recognition of the problem is better. During the Haskalah there were a lot of Jews who left Orthodoxy too, but they didn’t know about it everywhere. Now you know everything going on the minute it happens.

People are more aware of what the problems are, and there’s a concerted effort to address those problems in a more organized manner. Places like Etz Chaim in Baltimore are exclusively kiruv centers geared to reaching out and making classes available to people who are not affiliated. I don’t know that there were places like that before. The yeshiva movement began in Lithuania as a way to try to stem assimilation and help Orthodox Jews remain attached to Torah. But the biggest yeshiva in Europe had maybe 400 students, and now we have yeshivas with thousands.

I guess Facebook falls into that ‘more organized’ category. At the Women in Kiruv conference, there are two sessions about it.

They’re about how to use the technology for reaching out. It’s not about the halacha or hashgacha of using Facebook, but just practical.

But there are some people who don’t want to go on Facebook and don’t want to be open to just anyone, so AJOP also has their own internal Facebook-style program on our website for people to create their own groups without having to be exposed to the world.

Is kiruv different from the proselytizing other religions undertake?

We don’t missionarize [sic], we reach out to people. A missionary wants someone to be just like they are and do what they do. Outreach opens a door to Torah for people, but everyone has to find their own way in. No two people’s contribution is alike; everyone is unique, and missionaries want everyone to be the same and want everyone to believe in their thing. Other outreach groups reach out to all different religions and want everyone to become their religion; we believe that everyone in the world over can reach G-d in their own way. We only reach out to Jews.

You say that people involved in kiruv don’t necessarily want everyone to be like them, but there are some limits. Professionals in kiruv never encourage women to become rabbis for instance.

Many times people will come from an unaffiliated background, and their first step is towards Conservative Judaism. When people are trying to explore what Torah is, they go through different stages. Personally, as an outreach person, I would like people I reach to connect in their own way, at their own time, and to connect in an authentic way. Everyone has his or her own process of growth and timetable. Everyone has to find their own way and develop their own relationship to G-d. Torah is a process—it’s the work and the process that’s important. Some people think you are trying to make people frum and make people over, but that’s not the goal of authentic outreach; the goal is to be a resource on everyone’s individual journey.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer based in New York City.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter @saraivry.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer and journalist.